With every powerful swing, Rick Ankiel puts his pitching failures further behind him. A novelty no more, now he's the slugger leading St. Louis' playoff charge.
He's also the latest athlete accused of receiving human growth hormone.
Ankiel homered twice Thursday and had a career-high seven RBIs, sending the Cardinals to a 16-4 victory over the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates in a game shortened to eight innings because of rain.
Early Friday, the Daily News in New York reported Ankiel received a year's supply of HGH in 2004 from a Florida pharmacy at the center of an investigation by the Albany County (N.Y.) district attorney's office into the illegal Internet distribution of performance-enhancing drugs.
``This is the first I've heard of this,'' Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty told the Daily News. ``If it's true, obviously it would be very tragic.''
Plodding through a difficult year, the defending World Series champions have closed within one game of NL Central co-leaders Chicago and Milwaukee with just more than three weeks left in the season.
Ankiel has helped drive the Cardinals' late surge. He is batting .358 with nine homers and 29 RBIs in 23 games since being called up from the minors Aug. 9. He hit a tiebreaking, three-run homer in the second inning Thursday and made it 11-3 with a two-run shot in the fifth.
``It feels as good as it can feel,'' said Ankiel, who also had a two-run double in the sixth. ``The thing to remember when you get up there with runners on base is that the pitcher is the one that's in trouble.''
In the only other NL game Thursday, it was Los Angeles 7, Chicago 4.
Ankiel was once a young phenom on the mound with St. Louis before wildness and injuries derailed his pitching career.
The Daily News said he received eight shipments of HGH from Signature Pharmacy in 2004, a year before he began working his way back as a power-hitting outfielder. Ankiel stopped receiving HGH shipments just before Major League Baseball banned the substance in 2005, the newspaper said.
He missed last season after hurting his left knee, and hit 32 home runs in Triple-A this year before getting called up. The Cardinals are 17-9 since.
``It seems like we've been winning since I've been here,'' Ankiel said. ``Hopefully, we can continue.''
Mike Maroth, back from a bout of elbow tendinitis, allowed two runs over 1 2-3 innings in his first appearance since Aug. 4 for St. Louis. Kelvin Jimenez (2-0) got one out for the win, throwing a called third strike past Jason Bay to end the second with the bases loaded.
``It was a matter of just not being aggressive enough early in the count,'' Maroth said. ``I made a lot of pitches that would have been good with two strikes, or when I was ahead in the count. But early in the count you've got to make them put it in play.''
Pittsburgh's Bryan Bullington (0-1) gave up five runs and seven hits over three innings in his first major league start, five years after he was the No. 1 overall pick in the amateur draft.
The Cardinals (69-68) scored their most runs since Aug. 29, 2001, against San Diego. They had 22 hits, their highest total since April 27, 2003, at Florida.
``My fastball was a little flat and my slider was a little loopy at times,'' Bullington said. ``They took advantage of it, that's for sure.''
Ankiel's three-run homer in the second made it 5-2. He also scored four times and helped preserve the lead with his glove.
Making his second start in center field, Ankiel hauled in Steven Pearce's drive at the wall in the third. He barely missed a diving catch on pinch-hitter Matt Kata's slicing shot that fell for a double in the fourth, getting a round of applause for the effort. Ankiel also took a pair of curtain calls after his homers.
``Marvel is a good word,'' Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. ``It's kind of amazing, isn't it?''
Dodgers 7, Cubs 4
At Chicago, pinch-hitter Andre Ethier connected for a go-ahead, three-run homer off Ryan Dempster in the ninth inning, and the Dodgers closed within 3 1/2 games of NL West-leading Arizona.
Alfonso Soriano hit two homers, including a three-run drive in the seventh that put the Cubs ahead 4-2. But it wasn't enough for Chicago to avoid falling into a first-place tie with idle Milwaukee in the NL Central.
Matt Kemp's homer off reliever Bobby Howry closed the gap to 4-3 in the eighth, and Los Angeles took the lead in the ninth against Dempster (2-5), who blew a save for the third time in 28 chances.
Joe Beimel (4-1) pitched 1 2-3 innings of hitless relief and Takashi Saito got three outs for his 37th save in 40 chances.

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